Rey Ordoñez

This article was written by Thomas J. Brown Jr.

Reynaldo “Rey” Ordóñez Pereira defected from Cuba at the age of 22. He spent two years in the minor leagues after being signed by the New York Mets before he became their everyday shortstop in 1996. He developed a reputation as a stellar defensive shortstop over the course of his career. But his struggles to become a better than mediocre hitter created frustration and likely shortened his career.

Ordóñez was born in Havana, Cuba, on January 11, 1971. His parents were Reynaldo Ordóñez Sr. and Sonia Pereira de Ordóñez. He was one of seven children. Ordóñez’s mother died when he was eight years old and he was raised by his father. He later said that his life simply “wasn't the same” after his mother's death. Francisco Santiesteban, a childhood friend, said that “[w]hen he lost his mother, that was a big problem. He changed a lot.”1

While his father worked in construction and played baseball in local leagues around Havana, Ordóñez played baseball on the streets of Havana. He quickly became one of the standouts in Cuba’s youth baseball program. Ordóñez said that he learned to play the game from his father, who played in a Cuban professional league when he was young and was, according to Ordóñez, “better than I'll ever be.”2

When Ordóñez came to the United States in 1993 for the Summer Universiade in Buffalo, New York, he was part of the Cuban National team. Ordóñez was playing for the Havana Industriales club in Cuba at the time.

Ordóñez defected by jumping a fence before a game with Team USA. He was the third Cuban athlete to defect during the games. “I made my decision to stay when I got here,” he said. “All the ballplayers in Cuba are aware of what Rene Arocha is doing. He has been our motivation [for defecting].”3

When Ordóñez defected, he left behind a wife, Hilda Marie, and an infant son, Rey Jr. The Cuban government initially refused to let his wife and son immigrate to the United States as a result of Ordóñez’s actions. “Today, she went again to get a visa,” he told a reporter in 1994. “She cannot get one because of me. Every time she goes to get it, they tell her another delay.”4

After living with relatives in Miami for a short time, Ordóñez signed with the St. Paul Saints, an independent team in the Northern League. He played 15 games with the team, starting eight games at shortstop and seven at second base. The right-handed Ordóñez wasted no time in demonstrating his defensive skills by turning six double plays and recording a .970 fielding percentage during his short stint with the Saints.

When the season ended, Ordóñez had garnered attention from 22 clubs. The Mets won a lottery for the right to sign him. At the time, the Mets were looking for a shortstop and were excited at the opportunity to sign the young Cuban. “It’s definitely exciting for the organization,” said Gerry Hunsicker, the Mets vice president for baseball operations. “He's a legitimate major-league prospect.”5

The Mets sent Ordóñez to the Class A St. Lucie Mets (Florida State League) to start the 1994 season. He batted .309 in 79 games at shortstop, and turned 59 double plays before he was sent to the Class AA Binghamton Mets (Eastern League) for the final months of the season.

Ordóñez saw his offense drop slightly during his tenure in Binghamton, batting just .262. But he continued to demonstrate his defensive skills, turning 23 double plays in 48 games. “He has the most incredible hands,” said his Binghamton manager, Johnny Tamargo. “He has to be one of the best I have ever seen, and I played with Garry Templeton.”6

 “They called him SEGA because he made plays that looked like video game plays,” said teammate Bill Pulsipher.7

New York sent Ordóñez to the Norfolk Tides, their AAA team in the International League in 1995. He started 124 games for the Tides. Although his batting average dropped to .214, Ordóñez continued to demonstrate his ability to handle anything that was hit to him, posting a .967 fielding percentage while turning 88 double plays.

He also caught the attention of his coaches with his dumb plays on offense during his time in the minors. “He made a couple of nice plays,” Pulsipher recalled. “But the thing everybody remembers is that he got three hits and never reached base. He got thrown out (stretching), twice at second and once at third.”8

The Mets sent Ordóñez to play in the Puerto Rican winter league after the season. He hit .351 and lost the batting title to Roberto Alomar by three points. “I have confidence in my hitting,” he said when the Mets made him their everyday shortstop. “I only had one bad year, and that was last year. I will get better.”9

Ordóñez lived with his wife’s family in Miami after he arrived in the United States. He remained separated from his wife and son in Cuba. It became more and more difficult to stay in touch and eventually the couple separated. Ordóñez remarried in 1994, essentially leaving his past and his family behind in Cuba.

While Ordóñez was living with his first wife’s family, he met his second wife, Gloryanne, the stepdaughter of his father-in-law. After two years, they were married and had a daughter, Sonia, who was born in 1995.

(Ordóñez’s first wife finally came to the United States with Ordóñez’s son, Rey Jr., in 2001. She sued Ordóñez for child support claiming that he had provided her with only $1.50 per month when she was in Cuba. He claimed that he didn’t do anything wrong since he provided her with the standard Cuban child support payment of 30 pesos, which was approximately $1.50 at the time.10 He eventually reached an agreement with her to pay $6,250 per month.)

The Mets decided that Ordóñez was ready to be their everyday shortstop in 1996. He made his major league debut on April 1, 1996. Ordóñez had one hit in three plate appearances. He singled in the seventh inning and later scored one of four runs that inning as part of a Mets rally that would bring the team a 7-6 victory.

But it was on the field where Ordóñez made an impression on the fans who had shown up at Shea Stadium for Opening Day. In the top of the seventh, Cardinals outfielder Ray Lankford hit a soft line drive into the left field corner. Bernard Gilkey fielded the ball and tossed it to Ordóñez. who was forced to catch the ball on his knees. Still kneeling, he turned around and threw a bullet home. The ball arrived on one hop to catch Royce Clayton at the plate.11

 Ordóñez finished with a .257 batting average. But it was his .962 fielding percentage and 102 double plays that helped him to secure his spot in the Mets starting lineup. He finished fifth in  the Rookie of the Year voting.

Ordóñez struggled at the plate in his sophomore season. He batted .216 with only five doubles in 356 at-bats. Although he failed to provide any offensive punch to the Mets lineup, his fielding kept him in the lineup every day. His .983 fielding percentage earned him the first of three consecutive Gold Gloves.

Mets manager Bobby Valentine made hitting a priority for Ordóñez in spring training. They convinced him to make a small adjustment in his swing to improve his ability to hit breaking pitches. “There are going to be streaks when he’s not very good and streaks when he's good,” said his hitting coach Tom Robson. “Then we’ll see where he levels off. Hopefully he’ll be a good, average major league hitter.”12

The focus on hitting paid off in 1998. Ordóñez batted .246 along with a career-high 20 doubles. He talked about the changes in mid-season when he was hitting so well that he was being considered for the All-Star Game. “Sometimes I tried to pull the fastball away or the changeup and I’d hit it to shortstop or third base. [Now] I try to stay in the middle. When I try to pull the ball, my head moves. When I try to stay in the middle, I see more of the ball.”13

His expert glove work earned Ordóñez another Golden Glove award in 1998. His .975 fielding percentage was first among National League shortstops. He also had 265 putouts and 401 assists while making only 17 errors.

Ordóñez continued to make improvements at the plate in 1999. He further raised his batting average to .257 and had personal bests in doubles (24) and RBIs (60) for the Mets. But even this improvement left Ordóñez in the basement among number eight hitters in the National League.

'”Playing as often as he is, I think he could be a high-number doubles guy, a couple of triples if they’re playing him too short in the outfield, a few more homers. I think he could walk more. He doesn't have a big strike zone,” said Valentine after the season.14

He finished the 1999 season with a .994 fielding percentage — four errors in 154 games — earning his third Gold Glove. He went 100 consecutive games without an error, setting a major league record for shortstops.

Ordóñez seemed to be able to make any throw seem like magic. He made throws leaping, pirouetting, or sliding across the infield. He could flip the ball to first with his glove or his bare hand. He threw behind the back, between the legs, over the head. Mets general manager Steve Phillips said, “One time he swatted a grounder to first with his glove. Never touched his throwing hand. Another time he grabbed a ground ball behind second and did a pop-up slide on the bag to force the runner. It was the only way he could get his foot on the bag.”15

Ordóñez was unusual among players who relied on their fielding for their livelihood. While most players treasured their glove for years, he would use a glove for a month and then discard it for another one. “I like the glove to be stiff,” Ordóñez said. “I don’t like the glove to be too loose. The ball could go right under it.”16

He frequently used his glove to catch the ball and then toss it to the second baseman to turn a double play. But he didn’t always need the help of his second baseman. Ordóñez once grabbed a ground ball that deflected off the pitcher’s glove. After touching second, he leapt over the sliding runner and tossed the ball to first to get the second out.17 Ordóñez could cover the left side of the infield better than anyone when he was playing.

Robin Ventura, who played third base alongside Ordóñez, said: “I’ll tell you what's amazing. It’s the sound of Rey's feet moving after a ball. I can hear his spikes moving through the dirt. It's a very distinctive sound, like nothing I've ever heard before. There have been times when a ball has been hit to my left and I'll think, I can reach that with a dive. But I can hear Rey's feet moving so quickly that I know he can get it. So I don’t dive, and he's there.”18

Near the end of the 1999 season, Ordóñez and Luis Lopez got into a scuffle on a team bus. Ordóñez needed six stitches to close a cut on his left eyelid and missed several games.

The Mets returned to the postseason in 1999. Ordóñez had 4 hits, including a double in the series against Arizona. But his bat went silent in the NL Championship series when he batted .042 with just one single in 24 at-bats.

Before the 2000 season, the Mets made it clear that they expected more from him at the plate. “'I don’t like to throw numbers out there, but they sure in heck can’t be where they are now,” Valentine said before the season. “That's not productive. The only number that is really acceptable is RBIs, and that has to do with men on base.”19

The Mets signed Ordóñez to a four-year contract in January 2000. Notably the contract did not include a no-trade clause. The Mets wanted to have the option of seeking another shortstop if Ordóñez did not improve his offense. Mets general manager Steve Phillips said at the time that “[y]ou often hear about building a team up the middle, and certainly Rey and Edgardo [Alfonzo] up the middle are as strong a combination, arguably, as any in the game.”20

Ordóñez began the 2000 season with high hopes. But he ended up playing only 45 games after suffering an injury on May 29, leaping in the air to get a wide throw from the first baseman on a pickoff play. His left forearm was exposed when he came down for the tag on the Dodgers’ F.P. Santangelo. As Santangelo slid headfirst into the base, his helmet crashed into Ordóñez's arm and broke the ulna bone.

“He helped us a lot on the field, saved us a lot of runs,” Alfonzo said after the injury. “Every pitcher for this team is going to miss him. Rey is always there to make the spectacular catch and do unbelievable things.”21

At the time of the injury, Ordóñez was batting .188 with five doubles and nine RBIs. But he had been hitting better in the two weeks before the injury and Alfonzo told reporters that Ordóñez was frustrated with being forced to have season-ending surgery because he had been improving.22

Ordóñez returned as the Mets shortstop in 2001 with a metal plate in his arm. The team expected him to maintain his Gold Glove fielding. They were also counting on seeing improvement at the plate. “He’s always been an aggressive player,” Mets assistant general manager Omar Minaya said in spring training. “That's his style of play, ever since he was a kid. I don’t see him breaking away from his style of play.”23

“He can, when he's not hitting the ball on the ground, when he's hitting the ball where it’s pitched with a good swing,” said Robson “It’s more mental than physical. I think he’s made up his mind now that he’s going to get in a better rhythm, an earlier start, to make the ball look slower.” The team said that they expected him to perform like he did in 1999 when he set career highs with a .258 average, 134 hits, and 60 runs batted in.

Ordóñez made some changes to improve his batting. He changed his stance, standing up straight at the plate at all times. He realized that when he leaned over, he gave away the inside pitch. “If I was hitting .300, I don't change it,” he said. “[But] if I'm .250 or .260, you've got to do something to change your hitting. I feel better now. I'm seeing the ball good.”24

As Ordóñez worked on his hitting, his fielding struggled early in the season. He had nine errors by June 20, more than double the four errors that he had in 1999. Disappointed with his play on the field, Ordóñez refocused his effort and went on a 53-game errorless streak. “People didn't like the way he was playing so it's great he recognized it mentally or got physically better, to step his game up,” said Valentine.25

Ordóñez finished the season with a .247 batting average and 24 doubles. Although he finished the season with an outstanding .980 fielding percentage, he lost out to Orlando Cabrera for the Gold Glove award.

Ordóñez showed up for spring training in 2002 with the goal of improving his hitting. “I worked real hard in the off-season. Before I was stupid. I understand to hit I have to work hard and be a little stronger,” he told reporters when he showed up in Port St. Lucie.26

Ordóñez had batted eighth in the lineup for most of his career with the Mets. Valentine said that if he improved his hitting, he might move him to second. “He has more strength. That's what I like to see: line drives that carry into the gap for two bases. The two balls he hit today were hit very hard. And he’s been working hard.”27

Ordóñez did not make any significant improvements at the plate in 2002. His batting average went up just seven points to .254 and he hit just one more double (25) than the previous season. With José Reyes showing that he was ready to become their everyday shortstop, the Mets began to shop Ordóñez.

Ordóñez angered fans in September when he said, “I don’t want to play here no more. The fans here are too stupid. You have to play perfect every game. You can’t make an error. You can’t go 0-for-4. Are we like [bleeping] machines?”28

Although the Mets tried to downplay his comments, the front office had become frustrated with his behavior. Earlier in the season, Ordóñez skipped media day, sulking in the clubhouse while his teammates took pictures with fans. His errors increased from 12 to 19.

When asked about being traded, Ordóñez said, “I want something more relaxed. I’m 31 years old. I’ll probably play two or three more years, then I’m gone. After next year, I’m looking for something else. Maybe close to Florida.”29

Ordóñez got his wish when the Mets traded him to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for Russ Johnson and minor-leaguer Josh Pressley on December 15, 2002. The Mets also sent $4.25 million to Tampa Bay to cover part of Ordóñez’s salary.

The Mets front office played down Ordóñez’s problems with teammates and fans, saying, “We thought the winter was a better time to try to make this decision. We didn't want to get into the season, think Reyes was ready and have Rey there still wanting to play and have a conflict with bringing in a young player.”30

Tampa Bay expressed optimism about Ordóñez’s role with the team. “We have an extremely young ball club and Rey’s experience at shortstop will help us,” Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. “We haven't been as good up the middle, and he will be an added plus to the pitching staff.”31

“How do you help young pitching? By catching the ball,” Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella said. “That's one thing Rey can do. We’re excited about this.”32 Ordóñez performed well on the field and at bat for Tampa Bay in the first months of the season. He had one of his best months in April when he batted .326 and had 20 RBIs.

Ordóñez injured his knee in a game on May 8 and missed significant time. He returned on June 16 but his knee swelled up after the game. Doctors determined that he would need season-ending surgery to repair the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

“This hurts, not only because of his defense but his offense,” said Piniella when he learned the news. “He was hitting the ball well and was a heck of a shortstop. It’s not good news for us.”33

Ordóñez finish the 2003 season having played in only 34 games. He hit .316/.328/.487 with three home runs and 22 RBIs. Ordóñez’s contract was up at season’s end, and he became a free agent on October 30.

Ordóñez signed a contract with the San Diego Padres on January 24, 2004. He competed with rookie Khalil Greene for the shortstop position. Greene eventually beat him out. Ordóñez left their spring training camp when it became clear that he would not make the team and the Padres eventually released him on May 12.

The Chicago Cubs signed Ordóñez on May 18. At the time he said, “I stayed at home almost two months and I was happy when Chicago called me. I stayed in shape, went running, went to games, waiting for somebody to call.”34

He played in 23 games for the Cubs, batting .164/.190/.262 with one home run and five runs batted in. He played his last game on July 17, 2004. Ordóñez started at shortstop and went 0-for-4 in the Cubs’ 5-0 victory over the Brewers. The Cubs reactivated Alex Gonzalez from the 60-day DL on July 19 and released Ordóñez four days later.

Ordóñez never formally announced his retirement after being released by Chicago. He was given a spring training opportunity by the Phillies in 2005 but did not make the cut. He played winter ball in Puerto Rico in 2006.

The Seattle Mariners invited him to spring training in 2007 after they signed him to minor league contract on November 14, 2006. He played well and seemed to have a chance to make the team. Although he showed some improvement at the plate when he tried to make a comeback with the Mariners, his defensive skills, which had been his strength, had tailed off.

Midway through spring training, Ordóñez said, “For me, it’s been a good camp. I haven’t played for three years, so I think it went well. I feel good. I just needed a little more time to hit. But I feel good.”35

On April 1, 2007, Ordóñez was reassigned to the Mariners minor league camp, but he told the Seattle Times that at the age of 35, he was “too old for that.”36 Ordóñez hoped to catch on with another club but never did. After he failed to make the Mariners roster, Ordóñez returned to his home in Hialeah, Florida, where he resides today.

Ordóñez visited Cuba in March 2013 after President Obama changed the U.S. travel policy regarding Cuba. He spent most of his time in Havana, visiting the places where he grew up and played before defecting. “It surprised me because I've been gone twenty years and, really, I didn't play much in Cuba,” he said about the welcome that he received when he returned.37

His son, Rey Ordóñez, Jr., followed in his father’s footsteps. He played baseball at Broward College in Florida. Ordóñez, Jr. also played in the South Florida Collegiate Baseball League in 2014 where he played infield for the Florida Barons, batting .263.

“Ordóñez was objectively a genius as a defender, and defiant and weird and improvisatory in how he went about performing that genius. [However,] Ordóñez was never even a serviceable offensive player, and when his defense backed off its Olympian peak there wasn't much justification for keeping him around.”38

Last revised: May 21, 2019

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Norman Macht, and fact-checked by David Kritzler.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also used Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball-Almanac.com, and Retrosheet.org websites for player, team, and season pages, and other pertinent material.

 

Notes

1 Thomas Hill, “Treated With Kid Gloves, Ordóñez Full of Dazzle But Remains a Puzzle,” New York Daily News, March 29, 1998.

2 Jennifer Frey, “Ordonez Can Hold Everything Except His Family,” New York Times, August 17, 1994.

3 Fernando Dominguez, “A Third Cuban Athlete Decides to Defect to U.S.,” Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1993.

4 Frey.

5 Joe Sexton, “Mets Win Rights To Cuban Shortstop,” New York Times, October 30, 1993.

6 David Roth, “Rey Ordóñez And The Outer Boundary Of Range,” Vice Sports.com, March 31, 2017.

7 Hill.

8 Ibid.

9 Gerry Callahan, “New York…New York,” Sports Illustrated, May 6, 1996.

10 “Ordonez's ex-wife tries to get more then $1.50,” Racine (Wisconsin) Journal Times, February 16, 2001.

11 Matt Monagan, “Watch Rey Ordonez introduce himself to the world with a miraculous throw home from his knees,” MLB.com, January 11, 2017.

12 Ibid.

13 Tom Keegan, “Shea Rey Kid Star-Struck,” New York Post, June 10, 1999.

14 Tyler Kepner, “Glove Isn't Enough, Ordonez Is Told,” New York Times, March 5, 2000.

15 David Roth, “Rey Ordóñez And The Outer Boundary Of Range,” Sports.Vice.com, March 31, 2017.

16 David Waldstein, “Baseball’s A Glove Affair For Ordonez, New York Post, March 28, 1999.

17 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25tzEYBvi48

18 Tom Verducci, “Glove Affair: A new man at third has dressed up the Mets' infield, turning a good defense into a great one and New York into a playoff contender,” Sports Illustrated, September 6, 1999.

19 Kepner, “Glove Isn’t Enough.”

20 Tyler Kepner, “Mets Sign Ordonez To $19 Million Pact,” New York Times, January 26, 2000.

21 Tyler Kepner, “Surgery Will End Ordonez's Season,” New York Times, June 22, 2000.

22 Kepner, “Surgery Will End.”

23 Tyler Kepner, “Ordóñez Needs to Alter His Offensive Approach,” New York Times, February 28, 2001.

24 Tyler Kepner, “Mets Trying To Bolster Ordóñez's Bat,” New York Times, March 26, 2001.

25 Tyler Kepner, “Ordóñez Puts Ball in Air, And Hits Are Falling In,” New York Times, August 27, 2001.

26 Rafeal Hermoso, “Ordóñez Embraces New Role as a Hitter,” New York Times, February 26, 2002.

27 Ibid.

28 Andrew Marchand, “Ornery Ordonez: Mets Fans ‘Stupid’,” New York Post, September 28, 2002.

29 Ibid.

30 Murray Chass, “With Sigh of Relief, Mets Trade Ordóñez,” New York Times, December 16, 2002.

31 Ibid.

32 Josh Dubow, “Mets Trade Ordonez to Tampa Bay,” Edwardsville (Illinois) Intelligencer, December 14, 2002.

33 Tom Jones, “Doctor: Ordonez Is Out for The Season,” Tampa Bay Times, June 21, 2003, 46.

34 Paul Sullivan, “Ordonez to Get Shot as Shortstop Starter, Chicago Tribune, May 29, 2004, 3.

35 Geoff Baker, “Ordonez on verge of making Mariners,” Seattle Times, March 29, 2007.

36 “Hermanson Released by Reds,” Hartford (Connecticut) Courant, April 2, 2007, C7.

37 “Baseball Star Rey Ordonez Allowed To Return Home Thanks To Obama Travel Policies,” Huffington Post.com, March 19, 2013.

38 Roth.